At the time I’m writ­ing this I’ve made five com­plete pairs of shoes (and a couple of com­pletely writ­ten off attempts). The second shoe of the latest pair was the first one I have looked at and thought of as a com­pet­ent piece of appren­tice level work where all the basic tech­niques were there and executed without major screwup. This isn’t to say I’m good at this yet, just that I’m start­ing to be able to build things without mak­ing major mis­takes.

My first pair were made about six years ago now but for most of the inter­ven­ing time I was being slack and mak­ing less than a pair a year. My fourth and fifth pair I made in fairly quick suc­ces­sion and the increase in both know­ledge and skill I gained in mak­ing those two in four months was vastly more than the increase in skills between the first and third pair, which were made over the course of four or five years.

Build­ing shoes isn’t a skill in itself. It is a craft built on a diverse col­lec­tion of indi­vidu­al skills and the only way to mas­ter those skills is to prac­tice and under­stand each of them. Indi­vidu­ally some are harder than oth­ers, but ulti­mately it all just comes down to manu­al dex­ter­ity and muscle memory, so prac­tice on scraps even when you’re not mak­ing shoes, and keep those prac­tice pieces.

Write the date on them and save them to look back on so you can see how you’re improv­ing, and if there’s a tech­nique giv­ing you real prob­lems take the prac­tice piece to an event and see if you can find someone who can help you. More than once I have struggled for ages with a tech­nique only to have all of my prob­lems with it erased by 30 seconds of instruc­tion from someone who knew what they were doing.

The oth­er thing to do is when you work out what went wrong with a piece, write it down and keep that with the piece. If you do this you will be able to recog­nise it bet­ter if it starts to go wrong again, and you’ll have a valu­able teach­ing tool to show oth­ers.

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